WENATCHEE — Firefighters battling large blazes in central Washington state were on alert Saturday, as possible dry lightning storms and erratic winds had the potential to ignite new blazes or whip up existing ones.
Isolated or scattered lightning storms were possible into Saturday evening, and a red flag warning for the region is in effect until early today, said Steven Van Horn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“It's not going to take a lot of lightning to get fires started,” he warned Saturday morning.
Thousands of firefighters have been working to steer fires away from scattered hillside homes and entire communities for weeks now. The fires are burning on 143 square miles of parched forest, brush and grass. And residents of 161 homes north of Ellensburg, about 100 miles southeast of Seattle, have been urged to leave because of fires.
“We're watching this minute by minute, hour by hour,” said Jim Gumm, a spokesman for the Table Mountain Fire, one of several wildfires burning on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range.
That blaze has burned about 47 square miles and was about 7 percent contained as of Saturday morning.
“There's an increase in safety risk and there's a potential to move the fire in a direction that we don't want it to go,” he said of the forecast, which calls for lightning and very little precipitation.
The Table Mountain fire was threatening to merge with another large blaze southwest of Wenatchee.
Alan Hoffmeister, a spokesman for the Wenatchee Complex Fire, said firefighters are focusing Saturday on the interfaces of those two fires and trying to box them in rather than trying to keep them apart.
Firefighters have been able to stabilize blazes burning closest to the cities of Wenatchee, Chelan and Cashmere, and are focusing on the upper country in the hills south of Wenatchee.
“The message is be very cautious about the weather, keep your heads up,” Hoffmeister said.
U.S. Highway 97 could close intermittently as fire activity encroaches on the roadway, officials said.
Smoke from the fires is pouring across Eastern Washington, pushing into the Methow Valley overnight. State officials said Saturday that air quality remains hazardous in the Wenatchee area and nearby communities such as Cashmere and Pateros from the thick smoke, though some areas such as Leavenworth, Ellensburg and Cle Elum say some clearing overnight. They are advising residents to stay indoors, limit physical activity and keep doors and windows closed.
The smoke has already prompted some schools to relocate weekend sporting events. Central Washington University has moved its Saturday football game against Azusa Pacific from Ellensburg to the Seattle suburb of Bothell.